Councilman Shelly Tastet said the sole reason he first ran for a seat on the St. Charles Parish Council five years ago was to progress the West Bank levee project.
The levee system has been proposed to stretch from Luling behind Willowridge, Ellington, Mimosa Park and Magnolia Ridge before tying into an existing levee in Boutte. The anticipated cost of that levee is around $150 million.
Tastet said during his time on the council the potential for flooding in the area around Willowridge has gotten progressively worse as coastal erosion has resulted in less protection in parts of St. Charles Parish. Water is backing into the ditches during high tide and severe rain events. Tastet said some areas of the parish would be flooded if it were not for temporary pumps that are used often.
"All we are doing is circulating water to keep the tide down," Tastet said. "Once we stop those two big temporary pumps we’ve put there the water comes up."
Tastet said many of the homes in those areas should have never been constructed, but they now need to be protected.
In particular the Willowridge area worries Tastet the most. Rathborne Commercial and Industrial Properties developed the area by hauling in dirt and sand to elevate building sites while creating large ditches to push the water out.
"The Corps told them not to build back here to start off with and they went ahead and did it," Tastet said. "The Corps just doesn’t want St. Charles Parish to go back there and destroy more wetlands and you can’t really, if you know anything about wetlands. You can’t touch wetlands."
Tastet said there used to be a small ring levee protecting the area, but parts of it were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
"After Katrina, the Corps wouldn’t let us go back there and patch the holes up," he said. "All the levee is messed up. It’s like there is no levee back there at all."
Though the parish has put a few temporary measures in place to protect the area, Tastet said it is not enough.
"We could get flooded at any time. The right tropical storm stays out there and we are in trouble," Tastet said. "We don’t need a hurricane. A tropical storm staying out there and pushing water in here and we’re gone."
Parish President V.J. St. Pierre shares Tastet’s concern with the Willowridge area.
"We witness the vulnerabilities not only during hurricane season, but during times of simple high tide, especially in the Willowridge subdivision," St. Pierre said. "We are now working on acquiring land to build Phase 2 (south of Willowridge), have submitted permit applications for Phase 3 (Ellington) and are looking to begin construction as soon as possible with funds we have available locally from our own coffers and those of the Lafourche Basin Levee District."
In addition to deploying portable pumps, another temporary measure was recently taken by the parish. Large baskets filled with soil were placed along the back of Willowridge’s lower lying areas to act as a barrier between homes and wetlands. Tastet said although the baskets provide some protection, the Corps of Engineers is keeping the parish from beginning more comprehensive work, such as cutting down trees and preparing the land for a levee.
"Just give us the right of way to do the grubbing and let us grub the footprint of the levee and we’ll put baskets up there," Tastet said. "We’ve got a permit, but they’re not letting us move on it."
Tastet said the Corps is delaying the levee project because so many wetlands were destroyed during the construction of some of the neighborhoods.
"We’ve got a problem because we are trying to make a levee - we’re making a levee right now in pieces - but you can’t go and knock down any of these trees," Tastet said. "If you knock the trees down, the Corps comes after you for destroying the wetlands and you get another violation. Once you get a violation and it goes to the Corps, that just marks another reason why they won’t work with you."
Tastet said the flooding situation is likely to get worse after Jefferson Parish finishes construction on its West Bank levee that stops at the St. Charles Parish line.
"They almost got it closed to where the water is already trying to funnel this way. Talk about freak you out. We had meetings with the Corps," Tastet said. "I even told them – I said all this water has got to go somewhere. It has got to funnel and it is going to come right to us."
Right now only one out of three phases have been completed on the levee. Just over three miles of levee were built in the Boutte area around the time of Hurricane Katrina.
"Right now it’s nothing. It’s a piece of levee in the middle of nowhere. There’s no end to it this way and no end to it that way," Tastet said. "It’s a damn shame. We’ve got a levee, a pretty levee, but we don’t have any ends to it."
The main problem the parish is facing is one of funding. Parish officials are looking towards federal funding for the levee, but recent budgetary issues have not allowed for funding of the project.
In meantime, Tastet said there have been close calls in the past and the parish’s luck will not last forever.
"We got into the computer and went through one of the last storms," Tastet said. "If that storm wouldn’t have turned, that big storm that came and turned real quick, we would have had eight feet of water in my house up in the front of Willowdale. That’s how bad it would have been –eight feet of water."
St. Pierre said he shares residents’ frustrations with the timetable for the West Bank levee.
"The West Bank Hurricane Protection Levee has been my administration’s No. 1 priority and goal since day one. It’s a project with a long history of need in St. Charles Parish, and we share residents’ frustration with the time it has taken to correctly model, design and mitigate the three phases of this 9-mile stretch," he said. "Just on the West Bank of St. Charles Parish alone there are $10.5 billion worth of industrial, commercial and residential property assets that generate $67.3 million in local and $5 million in state tax revenue.
"We think those assets and the potential for nationwide economic disruption caused by widespread flooding clearly justify federal flood protection, and we continue to lobby our representatives in Washington for help with the $150 million price tag for the project."